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Why the Next Steve Jobs Will Come from Africa

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This is the first post of a 13-part series on entrepreneurship in Africa and the companies who participated in the inaugural Unreasonable East Africa program.


I was fortunate enough to spend part of July in Uganda with the team behind Unreasonable East Africa. In addition to being both humbling and inspiring, my experiences there convinced me that Uganda is just a part of an incredible transformation sweeping the whole of Africa. On my flight back home, I wrote “Africa is THE future” in my journal and underlined it a half-dozen times.

Here’s why:

10 Fastest Growing Economies-1

Seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

Africa is at a techno-cultural turning point that will prove to be as pivotal there as the Industrial Revolution was for Europe. Already, seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing GDPs are in Africa, where leapfrog technologies like cell phones being adopted at staggering rates. Add in some of the youngest populations in the world—millions upon millions of newly wired millennials with no shortage of problems to solve—and it becomes clear that, yes, Africa is the future.

The change is already well underway. In 2012, GDP growth in Sub-Saharan Africa ranged 6.8 percent in Tanzania to over 10 percent in Angola and Sierra Leone. That same year, global growth was 2.3 percent and only slightly better in the U.S. at 2.8 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. The total international trade in sub-Saharan Africa hit $735 billion, more than a fourfold increase since 2000 when it was just $169 billion (see graph).

Mobile technology has both fueled and been fueled by this economic transformation. According to the World Bank, there are more than twice as many cell phones in Gabon as there are people. Botswana has 1.6 cell phones for every person. Compare that to the U.S., which still has more people than cell phones. Today, according to the IMF, there are more mobile phone subscribers in Africa than there are in all of Europe.

Mobile Phone Adoption Rates in Africa

Mobile Phone Adoption Rates in Africa. (Click to enlarge.)

These numbers seem almost impossible until you actually visit Africa and see what’s happening on the ground. Take M-Pesa, a system of mobile payments launched in Kenya in 2007, as an example. The company has since become that country’s dominant form of payment. It processes 80 transactions a second, with a total value that accounts for 31 percent of Kenyan GDP. That’s a seven-year-old company handling nearly a third of all the money in an entire country. In terms of large-scale entrepreneurial disruption, Africa is just beginning to scratch the surface.

Here’s something else that bodes well: While industrialized nations are facing declining birthrates and even, in the case of Japan, an aging, shrinking population, 78 percent of Ugandans are younger than 30. More than half are under the age of 15. Even Unreasonable East Africa co-founder and CEO Joachim Ewechu is in his early twenties! He’s a case and point example of how the next generation of Africans is poised to change the trajectory of the continent.

GDPs in Sub-Saharan Africa

GDPs in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Click to enlarge.)

Possibly the most compelling reason to be optimistic about the future of Africa is seen in its legislative offices. The continent has a rate of female leadership that would be the envy of just about any government in the world. As of January 2014, women held a higher portion of legislative seats in Rwanda—64 percent—than in other national government in the world. In South Africa, that figure is 43 percent. In Senegal and Uganda: 42 and 35 percent, respectively. (If you’re wondering, women hold just 18 percent of legislative seats in the U.S.)

Beyond the current levels of growth and the new trends being seen across the continent, the reason I believe Africa is an entrepreneur’s paradise is because seemingly insurmountable problems still exist. As entrepreneurs, we love to solve problems, and nowhere will you find more and more urgent problems than in Africa.

This is still a place where extreme poverty is not uncommon, where far too many people live without access to clean water, medical care, and even reliable food sources. Half the continent lacks electricity; African countries have some of the highest infant-mortality figures in the world; and Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest levels of HIV infections.

Africa is at a techno-cultural turning point that will prove to be as pivotal there as the Industrial Revolution was for Europe. Tweet This Quote

Yes, the problems are very real; I will not deny that. But after spending time with Unreasonable East Africa, I’m convinced that the continent has an abundance of young people determined to build an Africa very different from the one they’ve inherited. And for perhaps the first time ever, these innovators have access to the technologies and the economic and socio-political trends they’ll need to create and scale those solutions.

These entrepreneurs are picking up where decades of aid left off, by launching locally owned, scalable businesses. That’s tough anywhere. But they also have the added challenges of limited connectivity, of needing to reach customers who live on less than $2 a day, and a severe lack of financing because the investment world has yet to shift their focus in a meaningful way onto emerging markets (especially African markets). Yet the obstacles in their way only push these entrepreneurs harder.

While the economic upside can be great—and should help attract investors who have so far been wary of emerging markets—profit seems secondary to the fact that these entrepreneurs are addressing problems like malnutrition, infant mortality, lack of educational opportunities, and crushing poverty. (All examples of what we, at Unreasonable, like to call BFPs, or “Big f***ing problems.”)

If successful, they will unleash an entire continent’s worth of great ideas that will touch each and every one of us.

In an effort to bring this entrepreneurial renaissance to life, over the next two weeks, we’re going to profile some of a select group of entrepreneurs working in Africa. It’s my belief that the next Steve Jobs will come out of Africa, and it’s my hope that these stories give you a glimpse of this new reality we are already living in.

Daniel Epstein

About the author

Daniel Epstein has an obsession. He believes to his core in the potential of entrepreneurship to solve the greatest challenges of this century and he has dedicated his...

Daniel Epstein has written 21 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • Bruce Campbell

    With all due respect to Steve Jobs, I might hope for something better out of Africa. Under his leadership, Apple made beautiful and innovative products, but I’m not sure he’s the kind of leader we want to emulate. It seems to me that we need leaders that are re-thinking capitalism and re-thinking consumerism. I like leaders like the founder of Patagonia, who encourages to consider whether we really need to buy more of his company’s products. Or Muhammed Yunus, who believes in markets and enterprise but not the extreme concentration of wealth. In an ideal world, we would see a leader from Africa that re-shapes capitalism in a way that is more sustainable both for the countries of African and the world. I’m not convinced the Silicon Valley model is the right one.

  • http://danielepstein.me/ Daniel Epstein

    Damn well said Bruce. I couldn’t agree more. I agree more. Title should be amended to “Why the Next Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) will be coming out of Africa.” Or maybe Elon Musk (who actually did come from Africa =)

  • Alexander

    I knew Africa was developing fast and gaining the technology that they lacked but to be exposed to this information I have a new look on Africa’s business aspect. I want to know just how many more obstacles do they have to go through to start their companies or how they appeal to the population that is stricken by poverty.

  • ryanhaberer

    Africa is only beginning its rise to success. With all of the bright minds and hard working people they have its only a matter of time until Africa explodes and becomes an economic powerhouse. While countries like the U.S are full of lazy people who just want to live off of the money from their parents, people in Africa are working their tails off each and every day just to get by and better the lives of their own families. With the combination of their hard work and creative minds, people from Africa could change the world in a heartbeat with the right resources. These people want to change things and are very willing to do everything they can to change the lives of their people for the better. They want to see their own kind flourish and be successful. Not very many people in Africa ever get the opportunity to show how brilliant they truly are because of the poverty, but with a little bit of help and education I think we would all be extremely surprised what they truly have to offer. These people face problems every day that most of us could never even imagine, and when you have to come up with solutions to these problems it gives you a completely different outlook on things, which in return gives you an edge on everyone else in different parts of the world. I admire the people of Africa’s hard work and can only hope that I use their hard work as an example of how I can change my own community for the better.

  • Boeing7

    Very good point made here Bruce. I would like to point out though that Steve Jobs was more of an innovator than a leader. His main concern was creating the next gadget that people could not live without, not leading Apple.

  • sirvin1

    How long would it take Africa to reach the same level of “success” as the rest of the developed world? Is simply having a entrepreneur come from a place where extreme poverty is a problem enough to solve that problem, or any of the others that Africa is having? Having multiple cell phones is not indicative of a technologically advanced economy, and having a more advanced form of payment than sticks or bottle caps doesn’t mean that the countries economy is advancing at a rate fast enough to surpass any current tech giants in the forseeable future. Having a large population under thirty also doesn’t mean that a country can advance quickly if half of that population can’t read or do simple math, let alone learn code and solve complex equations. The next Steve Jobs may come out of Africa, but there isn’t much he can do for his home, especially by him or her self.

  • Tessa Hochberg

    I am really impressed that you cited women’s involvement in public office as a cause to be optimistic about the future of Africa. So, thank you! Female leadership has many positive externalities on governance, entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships and more. This is certainly an area in which the U.S. should strive to catch up with Africa.

  • dshootays

    I feel that until the world decides to invest in the development of Africa’s businesses and economy, they will not necessarily produce the “world’s next big thing”. I don’t believe that there is a lack of young, eager minds ready to face the daunting amount of challenges in front of them but rather a lack of resources and external support.

  • omrsrf

    I totally agree with you. I think Africa has a lot of problems that need to be addressed and solved before we seek for next African Steve Jobs. Like you said, having a large population under thirty or having multiple cell phones doesn’t mean we can predict a great future for this continent. I wish that could happen, but growing fast economy doesn’t stop killing kids from a hunger in Africa.

  • amayeux

    I remember reading the book “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” about the life and success of William Kamkwamba, a Malawian teenager. He was able to bring together bicycle parts, tree materials, and other various objects to create a solar powered water pump for his village. Many people view Africa as a place where the main goal is to survive day by day. In some aspects it is, however like everywhere else, you will find people with the drive and determination to create something big. Although it isn’t a huge concern to find the next Steve Jobs, there is a huge possibility that the next genius that can significantly change the world will come from Africa.

  • Kay

    I am an international student in the U.S. and I don’t see many students from Africa, even though there must be a lot of young people who is willing to study in the U.S. I understand about lack of education resources or opportunities, but I really hope there will be some programs for those who want to study abroad.

  • dcanonic

    When new technology is introduced to a growing nation we tend to see a big increase in innovations and inventions, America in the early 1900’s sparked an inventors golden age and placed the American economy at the forefront of the world. The same is true for India and Japan. Inventors and innovators lead the way to economic growth. Africa is the next logical place to have a big industrial growth spurt as more technology and educational opportunities become readily accessible through the expansion of the internet.

  • yencheskcj27

    I love how this article breaks the American’s stereotypical view of Africans. I’m excited to see what innovations come out of the continent. Africans are positioned to succeed because, as the article stated, extreme poverty is still all too common in Africa, and as entrepreneurs begin to solve their everyday problems (how to obtain clean drinking water for all) they will be able to change the world. I believe Africans will not just innovate in terms as technology as Jobs did, but innovate in order to increase quality of life for millions of people living in poverty.

  • Paul Townsend

    This post by Daniel Epstein is very inspiring. I have a special love for Africa and to hear those words is a great hope that it can come true in our lifetime. I have been to Uganda and spent a month there in 2012. I also first encountered Ugandans in 2011 at Joint Base Balad Iraq where they were contracted to guard the gates and walls of nearly every US base in Iraq for many years. They protected us. Also, I have a Ugandan who designed and manages the website for my nonprofit. He is a self taught IT guy. I agree that the next Steve Jobs could indeed come from Africa. As a matter of fact, he must. Africa for too long has been on the bottom it is time for them to be at the top.

  • Tom Ashmus

    I like this article and I think that would be a really cool thing to happen, I just feel that being from Africa presents yourself with a lot of limitations. Africa does not have as many resources and extra money to spend on studies and research as the United States does. I feel that there are a lot of brilliant minds in the world that will never have the opportunity to really see what they are capable of.

  • epron

    I agree with what was said in this article but I think this idea goes beyond the technological sector. I spoke with the Kenyan Ambassador the UN last year for a school project who held a very positive outlook for the continent based on the rapid development occurring but expressed how the continued portrayal of Africa in the media as this sort of “basket case” is detrimental to the continent’s development and the mindsets of its people alike.

  • Garrett Nelson

    Thank you for the very insightful blog Daniel. I find it quite amazing that 7 out of the top 10 fastest growing economies come from Africa, as there seem to be much bigger and faster developing countries. In this case it seems logical that the entrepreneurial skills would be increasing based on the GDP increase and mobile phone rates within Africa. But based on just these things, how is it predictable that a new inventor/entrepreneur, someone having a bigger and bolder mind than Steve Jobs, would come out of Africa? Is there anymore statistical evidence that countries in Africa will be the surging economy in the future? With that in mind, what do you personally believe will be the next “Apple Computer” or “iPhone”? What will be the next bigger and better? Thanks again!

  • Jack Delabar

    I agree, Tom, and I think that it’s totally unfair. Don’t get my wrong, I bleed red white and blue, but our resources and privileges are so often taken for granted and almost wasted. Some of those people are the definition of hard work and I would love to see what they could do if they had some of the things that we have.

  • Mia Tucker

    Thank you for this insightful article. Oftentimes it seems like Americans perceive Africa as sort of a black hole when it comes to innovation, when in reality it is a continent booming with potential. I hope to see great technological advancements come from African countries in the next couple of decades.

  • thompsonjm99

    thank you for this article! I agree that that Africa is often over looked when they should not be.I agree there is much room for improvment and advancements in Africa as well What do you think will be the next big thing?

  • Ananda Conlon

    It was very eye opening to read about the ratio of humans to cell phones. I was surprised at the results of that study. I would have assumed that the United States ratio would be much higher than that of an African country. We should focus on educating all of the people in third world countries. With all of that extra brain power working towards a greater cause, we would have something that blows one person’s ideas out of the park.

  • JeremyWahl

    Thanks for the article, Daniel. I like the fact that you brought up Africa as a country who the first thing that comes to mind is poverty being in north america. Everybody has a chance at being a mastermind and leader as how Steve Jobs was with Apple. i can not wait for the future to tell if Africans first create innovations in technology but also innovate a better lifestyle and quality of life with bettering the water quality and medicine care.

  • Julia Kramer-Golinkoff

    This article is very interesting and provides a new outlook on Africa. My only question is how far does Africa have in order to catch up to the rest of the highly developed nations? Parts of Africa are so far behind places like China and the US. While Africa may be developing at a faster rate, they have a very far way to go in order to reach our success and moreover surpass the US.

  • Aarynn Bosshart

    Two stats that you provide in this article were shocking to me. 1) seven of the world’s 10 fastest growing GDPs are in Africa & 2) As of January 2014, women held a higher portion of legislative seats in Rwanda—64 percent—than in other national government in the world. In South Africa, that figure is 43 percent. These two peaces of information show that Africa is a much more progressive continent than I would have previously thought. However, it is just that, a continent. There are many countries within Africa, How can change happen on such a large scale with so many different cultures and histories mixed in? I was also amazed to hear that 78 percent of Ugandans are younger than 30. That is hard to imagine because it’s so different in the U.S. I am happy to hear that your experiences in Africa gave you optimism for the future!